An arbitration panel has rejected a fact-finder's recommendation that Baltimore County give 3 percent, across-the-board pay increases to two unions - a decision that county officials applauded as validation of the economic realities of a tight budget year, but which the five-member panel's one dissenter said was unfair because deliberation on the issues lasted only minutes.
The panel voted 4-1 Thursday to recommend to County Executive James T. Smith Jr. that no cost-of-living raises be given to members of the Baltimore County Federation of Public Employees and the Baltimore County Federation of Public Health Nurses in the 2009 budget, according to county officials.
"As we've said all along, we're very disappointed that we can't give raises to employees," said county communications chief Donald I. Mohler. "It's just not the time to be raising taxes on the families of Baltimore County."
But the panel's dissenter, Victor Ciuccio, whose background includes more than 20 years of working for unions, said the fact-finder's recommendations deserved greater weight.
"My experience with arbitrations leads me to believe that the recommendations of the fact-finder were valid and equitable," he said. "He did a very thorough analysis."
Ciuccio, selected by the unions to serve as an arbiter, said he believes most of the panel's members came to the table determined to side with the county.
But John Gaburick, another member of the panel, said the county's budget representatives had the best grasp of facts and data, and presented a "clearly more compelling case" that the county couldn't afford to give raises in the coming fiscal year, which starts July 1.
He confirmed that the arbitration panel's deliberations lasted about 20 minutes and came after it met for about an hour each with the county's budget officials and the unions' representatives. But he said the county presented "a whole lot more data" than the unions to support its contention that it couldn't afford the raises.
Fact-finder Robert T. Simmelkjaer wrote in a March 20 report that "the county's financial situation is not so dire as to require a wage freeze."
In his report, Simmelkjaer said the two unions "provided ample evidence" that the county has routinely overestimated expenses and underestimated revenues.
The two unions requested the nonbinding arbitration after the county's labor commissioner rejected most of the fact-finder's recommendations.
The Baltimore County Federation of Public Employees represents about 1,700 workers. The Baltimore County Federation of Public Health Nurses represents nearly 90 full-time and part-time public health nurses and nurse practitioners.
The arbitration panel's nonbinding recommendation goes to Smith, who is to make the final decision.